SSG Ethan Rocke originally published this article in the Okinawa Marine Newspaper. It was later picked up by under their headline news and SSG Rocke was formally recognized by the Marine Corps for his telling editorial.

The United States Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association awarded SSgt. Ethan Rocke a First Place Commentary for this.

Rocke calls his piece “Death of the Marksman” and writes that the “new rifle qualification scoring system elevates mediocre shooters and drastically lowers Corps’ standards.” In his analysis of the system he argues that the aggregate scoring system “has degraded the distinction of what an expert shooter is by Marine standards… lowering standards is something Marines don’t do.”

…except the Marines actually did lower their rifle qualification standards and continue to use this lowered standard despite published commentary pointing out the folly of it.

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UPDATE: In the interim, Marine Corps leadership has since boasted how the USMC now has about 60% of personnel qualifying “expert” exactly as Sgt. Rocke predicted over a decade ago in his essay when the standard was lowered. That’s what happens when you move the goalposts and reduce the standard low enough to make things easier.

New rifle qualification aggregate scoring system elevates mediocre shooters, lowers Marine Corps standard

by Sgt. Ethan E. Rocke, Okinawa Marine Newspaper

Say goodbye to the Marine Corps marksman. From now on, all Marines will be either sharpshooters or experts.

Those lines may as well be written into the new Marine Corps Combat Marksmanship Program order, which has effectively lowered the Corps’ standard for excellence in rifle marksmanship.

That may just be my humble opinion, but I am predicting, and hoping, that once Corps officials run the numbers and analyze the statistical evidence of how many Marines are earning a classification of sharpshooter or expert now compared to before our rifle qualification standards changed, they will come to the same conclusion.

The problem is that the new aggregate scoring system combines a shooter’s scores from the fundamental marksmanship portion, Table 1, and the combat marksmanship portion, Table 2, and that aggregate score now determines a shooter’s badge classification.

The new system eliminates, on the fundamental marksmanship course, the minimum score a shooter must receive to earn a classification above marksman. Shooters used to have to obtain a minimum score of 210 or 220 (out of a possible 250) on the fundamental course to earn a classification of sharpshooter or expert respectively. Those days are no more.

The aggregate score minimums are now 305-350 for expert, 280-304 for sharpshooter, and 250-279 for marksman.

Under the new system, a Marine can leave the fundamental course a marksman, shooting anywhere from 205 to 209, and still elevate his classification straight past sharpshooter to expert by shooting anywhere from a 96 to the maximum score of 100.

I completed my annual rifle qualification a few weeks ago, and I was highly disappointed by the droves of Marines who were giddy over the fact that they were able to make up for a mediocre performance on Table 1 with a decent performance on Table 2.

Two Marines from my office were on the range with me. Both had never qualified above marksman. Both shot below a 210 on the fundamental course. Both left the range sharpshooters. This type of outcome was rampant across the entire range detail.

One Marine on my detail shot a 193 on Table 1, just three points above the minimum score needed to pass the table, and still walked away from Table 2 with a brand new shiny sharpshooter badge. This amused him, just like it amused all the other Marines who walked away from the range this year with a new notion of what is average, excellent or outstanding when it comes to a Marine’s ability with a rifle. The fact that Marines are literally laughing at this new system speaks volumes about its impact on our standards.

I collected data on 176 shooters who qualified with the new system on Okinawa. Of those 176 shooters, 93 qualified as experts, 53 qualified sharpshooter and seven qualified marksman. Twenty did not qualify, either because they did not meet minimum standards or because they were dropped from their range details for other reasons such as faulty weapons.

I don’t have older data to compare those numbers against, but I’m betting, based on strong anecdotal evidence, that experts were not always in the strong majority, and marksman were not always a virtually nonexistent minority.

The new Marine Corps Combat Marksmanship order articulates the reason behind the implementation of Table 2 into annual qualification training: “Combat ready Marines must be … highly proficient in the use of firearms. Well-trained Marines have the confidence required to deliver accurate fire under the most adverse battle conditions. The rifle is the primary means by which Marines accomplish their mission … The objective of marksmanship training is to develop, sustain, and improve individual combat shooting skills.”

I agree 100 percent with all that and am glad the Corps has implemented Table 2 into annual qualification. It is valuable training.

What I don’t agree with is the way the aggregate scoring system has degraded the distinction of what an expert shooter is by Marine standards.

Under these new standards, the Corps has opened the doors and welcomed everyone to the party: “Chips and dip to the right, sharpshooter and expert badges to the left. Please check any sense of what excellence is at the door.”

If the aggregate system is here to stay, it needs to be revised, and the standard needs to be raised. The Table 1 minimum scores for each classification need to come back at the least. That alone might be enough, but we should also consider the fact that a shooter’s proficiency with a rifle should be measured consistently. We used to require 84 percent hits for sharpshooter and 88 percent hits for expert on Table 1. Maybe we need to require the same minimums on both tables.

Some Marines might shudder at that elevated standard, which would mean a bad day of combat marksmanship shooting could mean the loss of a higher badge classification. What those Marines should shudder at is that right now we have a system that has drastically lowered our standards.